Transcript from an interview with Susan Cooper

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Susan Cooper. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Readers and storytellers

I was born into a reading family. My mother was a teacher. My parents read to us before I can even remember. You just took it for granted. I had a younger brother. I think we both learned to read very early without really noticing the way kids who are read to often will. Besides that, because I was English and living in the middle of World War II we didn't play outside a lot when there was an air raid going on. So, you were inside reading. It was a matter of exposure to books, I think, which is the secret to getting children to read.

There was a lot of storytelling in the family. My mother came from a family of seven. We were forever saying to her, "tell us about the olden days" which of course meant her childhood in London. Her father was a colorful character. So, there were lots of stories about Granddad, who was stage-struck, and used to take his children to theatre when he could afford it, especially to Gilbert and Sullivan at the Savoy Theatre in London so that he could wait outside the stage door when the main actor, Sir Henry Lytton, came out, and touch his hat and say, "Good evening, Sir Henry."

When we had family parties at my grandfather's house, he was the performer. He would, well he made everybody perform. But, he would do Victorian monologues. I think subconsciously he was a great influence on me because he fostered this sense of story in all of us.

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Always a writer

I sometimes think I must have started writing as soon as I knew how to write. I just took it for granted that that was what I was going to do. I don't think I thought consciously I want to be a writer, I just wrote. I can remember writing a very tiny book which I sewed together in the middle. It was some sort of a fairy story, illustrated badly I expect. So, I made my little book and put it in a drawer.

My favorite uncle came to stay and either was shown this by my parents or came across it and read it and said to me, "This is very good." I was appalled that somebody else had read it. I burst into tears and tore it up. Writing was a very private matter, I think. Maybe I was telling myself stories. I haven't done that again.

I always did different things. After the episode of the torn up book, I remember writing little plays for a puppet theater that the boy next door had. I must have been about ten. I was the kind of kid who wrote for and then edited the school magazine.

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My life as a journalist

I went to Oxford University and did a degree in English because I took it for granted that was what I was going to do. History was actually the subject I was getting best marks in, but I couldn't imagine doing anything except English literature. In the same way, I edited the university newspaper. They hadn't had a woman do that in those days before.

They had something at Oxford, well maybe every university, called the University Appointments Board. You went there to get advice on what you were going to do when you went down for university. And they said, "Have you thought about teaching?" My mother was a teacher, so I knew what hard work it was, for one thing. I said, "Well, I'm a writer." They shook their heads and said, "Well the only hope is if you go to a provincial newspaper somewhere a long way from London," which is of course the focus of everything in Britain, "and train for a year."

I thought, well journalism is clearly the only way I can earn my living by writing, so I certainly will be happy to be a journalist. But, with the arrogance of just 21, I thought, "I have edited the university newspaper. I know how to do this. I'm not going to train."

We had had something called The University Press Club to which we invited speakers from Fleet Street, which was the focus of journalism in Brittan. And anyone who had come over the course of the years had said, "If there's anything I can do for you, call me" — or "ring me," this being Britain.

So, I did two things when I finished my degree. I was in Oxford the week after everybody else had gone. It was such a sort of illogic time that I sat down a wrote a piece about leaving Oxford and sent it to the deputy editor of the Times, the Daily Times, who was one of the people who had come to talk to us. To my astonishment, the published every single word of it, which encouraged me to try other people.

So, I got in touch with the news editor of the Sunday Times, which was then a separate newspaper. He said, "Well, I can give you a try, but the only thing I can give you to go to, to write about is a rose show, a flower show." 800 words, a color piece, which of course meant just atmospheric. So, off I went to the national rose show at something called the Horticultural Hall in Westminster.

It was full of displays of roses with all those lovely names that they give roses, like Peace and Victoria and Queen Elizabeth. I roamed about with my notebook listening to the people who grew roses asking questions. I thought, "How on earth can I make this interesting. Nobody's going to be interested in flowers." And, just as I was about to leave I heard a little old lady say to one of the rose growers, "How far apart should I keep my Passions?" The rose grower said, "Well, 18 inches is a safe distance, madam." So, I thought, "That's my introduction." I went back and wrote my piece and they published it.

The newspaper had an editorial meeting every Tuesday after their Sunday edition came out. They discussed what was in it. The news editor said to the editor, "I'd like to take this girl on, but the budget is a bit tight." And the foreign manager, who was a gentleman called Ian Fleming, said — he was writing a column for the newspaper as well. He said, "I'll take her on for the column half time and you can have her for the other half of the time." So, that was how I became a professional writer, with thanks to the creator of the Bond books and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

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Enchanted by Merlin

I was earning a living by journalism and it was great fun. I did all sorts of things for the eight or nine years I was on the Times, but I was always writing on the side. I'd been obsessed with myth, especially Arthurian legend, ever since I was little. I think I was still reading things like that. I was writing short stories. I tried to write a novel.

I wrote the usual first novel about an unhappy love affair that everybody writes. And the newspaper had one little feature called Mainly for Children, started by the art editor. A lot of us, well not a lot of us, some of us did things for it in our spare time for free just because it was fun.

I did a whole bunch of things for that and as a result one day the literary editor of the newspaper came into my office. He dropped a piece of paper on my desk and said, "Look at this. You ought to try this." It was a notice from a publishing house in London called Ernest Benn, Ltd., who had published the children's author E. Nesbitt ages ago. Victorian, turn of the century.

They were offering a £1,000 prize for what they called a family adventure story. That was more than I earned in a year. So, I thought, "Ooh." I started to write a family adventure story. I invented three children called Simon, Jane and Barney and put them in a train going down to the west country, Cornwall, where we'd been as children on holidays.

Once I got them to Cornwall a character came into my head who I call Great Uncle Merry, who was a Merriman lion, who was a kind of — I can't think of the right word — not manifestation.

Merry is really a kind of Merlin. The moment he came into the book I realized I was writing a fantasy. It was like coming home. I went on writing the book. It was no longer the family adventure story, so I forgot about the deadline. I forgot about the prize and I finished the book, and knew that this was what I enjoyed doing more than anything.

It was eventually published. I sent it to an agent not knowing any better, and the agent sent it back and said, "More than 20 publishers have turned this down. I'm sorry." So, I said, "Have you sent it to Jonathan Cape?" because Cape had published my favorite books when I was a child.

"Oh, of course," said the agent. So, I sent it to Jonathan Cape and Cape published it. It was called Over Sea, Under Stone. That was my first fantasy novel.

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After I finished Over Sea, I did something that appalled my parents, my family, my editor, especially my editor, because I married an American who was 20 years older than me and had three teen aged children. I left London. I left my job, left everything and came to live in Massachusetts.

It was such an enormous change of life that my head went sideways. I wrote a book about America for the British — Britain for the Americans. It was called Behind the Golden Curtain because I felt we didn't understand each other one bit.

I edited a book of essays of an English writer who was a friend of mine, J.B. Priestly. I wrote a book about him.

I was writing a weekly column for the National Morning Newspaper of Wales, which is also a part of my life. I'm a quarter Welsh. I was doing almost everything you can think of except writing for children. I don't quite know why, I think it was because I was having such trouble dealing with being homesick, getting used to living in the states, not to mention being a step-mother of three teenagers at the age of 27.

Then, one day we were cross country skiing in Winchester, Massachusetts where we lived. I found myself going down the trail looking at banks of snow with bare branches sticking out of them.

They looked rather like buried deer. Suddenly, for absolutely no reason, I thought, "I want to write a book set in snow just like this, but in England, about a boy who wakes up on his 11th birthday and finds he can work magic."

So, when I was at home, up in my study — my patient husband had made me a very nice study at the top of the house. I started to play with this idea and it didn't work. It came out, just didn't come out right, so I put it away. I went on writing my non-fiction things. I wrote a different book, an autobiographical book about growing up in England during World War II. and again, sent it to an agent.

I hadn't learned any better yet. The agent said, "I'm sorry, this is about a child, but it's for grown-ups and it doesn't fit on anybody's list, adult or children's list." By this time, an American editor called Margaret McElderry, at Harcourt Press, had bought my first book from its English publisher, Over Sea, Under Stone.

She was a friend, so I sent her this manuscript and said, "Nobody wants to publish this. Could you tell me what's wrong with it?" She read it and she said, "There's nothing wrong with it. It's a children's book and I'll publish it." It was called The Camp. So, she published it. She wanted the name changed.

We called it Dawn of Fear.

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Imagining Dark Is Rising

Something made me reread Over Sea, Under Stone one day, which is a story basically about the conflict between the dark and the light, the good and evil in the world, in everybody, with Merriman, the Merlin figure at the center of it.

I remembered the idea about the boy in the snow and suddenly thought, that connects with the theme of Over Sea. This is part of something much bigger, these two books. There's not just two books. There are more of them, five, like the movements of a symphony. Over Sea is the first. The second is my boy, whatever his name is.

It took me a while to find his name. In the end I called him Will after the greatest Englishman of all the writers, Will Shakespeare. I took a piece of paper and I wrote down the five names of the books, the characters that were going to be in each of them, where they were going to be set, different parts of Brittan, the times of the year, usually either a solstice or an equinox.

And then, before I'd finished this extraordinary process, I wrote down the last half page of the very last book and I put it away because a book is always a journey when you're writing. At least for me, you know where you start. You know where you're going. You don't know very much about the parts in between, who you're going to meet. So, now I knew where I was going.

I started to write the second book, which was called The Dark is Rising, which eventually became the name of the whole sequence of five books. And then I realized that I was really at home in my head and spent the next six years writing the four remaining books of the Dark is Rising sequence. A lot of things happened on the way in my life as well as in the books. But it was the most secure part of my imaginative life I think because I knew where I was living in my head. I envy people who write series, because they know where they're going with each book.

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A longing for place

Place is central to the Dark is Rising books. I think there are two reasons. England is — Britain, England, Wales, Scotland — has had people living in it one race after another four or five thousand years and always an invader drives the burley people back to the west. There's a constant sense of attack, survival, good and evil. It almost soaks into the places, especially the mountains, which is where those that are being driven back into retreat to.

When I was growing up, I could see Windsor Castle from my bedroom window. There was a grassy mound on the way to school that we passed every day, which was an Iron Age fort. A farmer had been plowing in a field nearby and turned up a Roman mosaic pavement because England was Roman for 400 years in the Dark Ages, before the Dark Ages.

And that sense of place just takes over the imagination I think I would you really knowing it. The places that really talked to me were the part of Buckinghamshire where I grew up, the mountains in Wales I think most of all the valley from Huntleigh to Aberdovey which is the little valley in Mid Wales where my, little town in Mid Wales where my grandmother came from. And Cornwall because we spent summers there and it too is one of the places, the early, the Celts and those after them were driven down to. That sense of place meant that the books were rooted in place as much as they were in the people or even the story.

And the other thing that was bearing on all this was the fact that I was so horribly homesick English person, part Welch person living in America. The homesickness drove me to read a lot I think about the local background of the myth. I had bookshelves, shelves and shelves full of books about early Britain, physically and historically. And the old novelists J. B. Priestly about whom I'd written would write me comforting letters from Britain saying, he was from Yorkshire, don't worry, you write better about a place when you are away from it.

And it was true, I think. I was writing about my places from somewhere else. And I suppose, there's a word that the Welch have. It's called hiraeth and it is, it homesickness, only something more, it means a sort of longing for place. And that was infused in the books too, I think.

There is a thing about place. I don't know what it is. Every writer feeds off place to some extent. There is an English, a wonderful English fantasy writer called Alan Garner, who is totally rooted in his place. And more than half his books are about where he was born, where his family came from, where he lived and still lives. And I find, I'm now living on a house on an island in a salt marsh in Massachusetts, which is magical in its own way and it's taken over my imagination. So the book that I've just written is again totally rooted in that place. The first book I've written, actually second in America.

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Where the imagination lives

Children often say "where do your ideas come from?" It's their favorite question for authors. And the only answer is to say they come out of my imagination, which doesn't help them one bit. So I tend to say think of there being a little room in your head which has a door with no handle. This is where the imagination lives. It is fed by everything you remember about what you have thought, done, everybody you've met, everything you've read. It's all in that little room, which makes the metaphor completely, it's like a compost heap for a gardener; it feeds the things that grow, it feeds the ideas.

So there's the little room and the back of your head and once in a while the door will open from its own accord, you cannot control it, and an idea comes out and you have to grab it before it flies away and the door closes again. And after that it's up to you what you make of it.

Once the idea is out it's up to you what you make of it, whether you turn it into something small, something large. But it has been created by this mixture inside your own imagination or memory by creativity, whatever that is. There is no real original story in the whole world. There is what Tolkien used to call the Cauldron of Story. And it's the idea that you have is somebody else has had it before, but it's coming out of your imagination, so it would be your idea.

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What if?

There is an alternative to the time honored thing that children have been asked to do when they have to write something, anything, which is what I did on my holidays. If you can startle them into thinking out of the box, if they are sitting there at the desk saying I haven't got any ideas, make them think what if? What if the girl at the next desk suddenly arises six feet in the air and floats? What happens next?

What if the pencil on your desk suddenly grows horns and starts to wiggle? What happens next? What if a dog flies in with wings at the window? What if? What happens next? Or even, I have a wonderful friend called Sarah Ellis who is Canadian, great novelist, and she wrote a book I think principally aimed at teachers trying to encourage kids to write. I shan't remember this properly, but there's a wonderful piece in it about having to write the thank you letter to grandma what do I say?

And she says when you get past Dear Grandma, thank you for the socks, start thinking about the socks. Think about it from the socks' point of view. How do they feel when they suddenly find themselves in a drawer full of other socks? Are the other socks welcoming? Are they hostile? What do they feel about feet? And she goes on. It's very good. I can't remember more than that.

But it's the same thing of trying to get the kids to think in a different direction than they would normally do, which is I think what we try to do to ourselves when we're writers and we're sitting and looking out of the window chewing the pencil. I still chew the pencil or the pen. I do not write at the computer.

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Writing for young children

Most of the books I've written that are published for older children were written for me. They were written for what Maurice Sendak calls the child self. It's the person you've always been and will always be. Writing for, if you're deliberately writing for younger children then you are more conscious of the fact that you really aren't writing just for yourself, but somebody else is going to read it.

Matthew's Dragon, which is a picture book that I did was written for my grandson Matthew. It's like what I was saying about the what if, Matthew's Dragon is a story about reading, a little boy being read a bedtime story by his mother. The book is about a dragon.

And Matthew doesn't particularly want to go to sleep, but his mother says no, it's bedtime, she puts the book down on the bedside table and kisses him goodnight and goes away. And the what if is what if the book opens and there's a dragon? So that was Matthew's Dragon. I wrote retellings of English Scottish Irish folk tales deliberately with an artist in mind, because Margaret had, my editor had shown me the work of an English painter called Warwick Hutton, which I loved. So Warwick and I did three books together.

I wrote a book for, deliberately for younger children called Jethro and the Jumbie , because very early on when my children were tiny, no, they weren't even born, my husband and I had bought a tiny piece of land on an island in the British Virgin Islands where we built a little holiday house. And we used to go down there winters and summers.

And getting to know the Virgin Islands children, I realized that they were being given, all the books they had in school were English because it used to be part of the British Commonwealth. I guess it still is. But they had their own English, and there was nothing written in their kind of English. So I thought I'll write one. So I wrote the story about Jethro and a Jumbie who is a spirit. Because it was written in British Virgin Islands English it didn't get a great public outside the British Virgin Islands. You are conscious of your audience of course when you're writing for younger children.

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Promoting a love of reading

I'm on the Board of the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance, which was started by a wonderful missionary called Mary Brigid Barrett.

The overall aim obviously is to encourage children to read, especially in this digital age. I don't think the paper book is ever going to go away however many devices we have. And Mary Brigid and all of us are most occupied with trying to reach out to help teachers especially and parents and just to reach kids. And we do it in every way we can think of. We've tried to do it through two books. One was called Our White House, which was an enormous number of contributors, writers and artists doing this wonderful book about the White House, which has worked particularly I would think by being used in lessons about American history.

Much less focused or formal was something we did called the Exquisite Corpse, which was a bunch of us writing a sequence, a story in sequence. John Sciezska did the first one and Katherine Paterson did the last one. In between we did two episodes each, each of us trying to make life as difficult as possible for the next author.

They were done on the Library of Congress website. And we had, I think Mary Brigid said it was, overall she reckoned it had reached half a million kids in different parts of the world, each episode illustrated by a separate, terrific illustrator. Now it's a book. And same way it's to enable teachers to have a model to have kids do the same thing. And it was just fun. And reading is fun. There is absolutely no other way of engaging your own imagination in something separate from real life.

If you can catch children between the ages of two and 12 I would think you have them for life. And they become passionate about the books that they love at that age. The second in my Dark is Rising series, which was also called The Dark is Rising was made into a film, which was so totally different from the book that it broke my heart. But I was much consoled by an extraordinary outpouring of blogs, tweets, all those things on the internet from kids who — well, kids and grownups, kids growing up — of all ages shrieking about the fact that this wasn't what they had seen in their heads when they read the book.

Those are the readers you will end up with if you can reach out to them the way we're trying to with the NCBLA. And you create new writers and artists by doing this, hopefully.

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The Revels

After I'd written the second or possibly the third in the Dark is Rising sequence something else came into my life and took one of those turns. My editor Margaret McElderry was staying with us, we lived near Boston and Cambridge, and we went a performance of the Christmas Revels with is a solstice celebration at Sanders Theater at Harvard, which was created by a magician called John Langstaff, Jack Langstaff.

A joyous theatrical, it's very hard to describe the Revels, except that it's magical. We went to this performance. My children and I were enchanted. Margaret took us backstage to meet Jack Langstaff, with whom she'd one a bunch of books, mostly retellings of ballads and things. And Jack shook my hand and he said oh, but I've read your books, you should be writing for the Revels.

And to cut a long story very short, I did for the next 20 years. Short plays, lyrics, notes, program notes, record notes. Because what the Revels does is create a magic of involvement of communities, especially children, not especially children, communities, families, in a really joyful celebration of ritual times of the year, like summer, winter, which we don't have in our culture in any other way, we've lost it.

And he was a missionary of an extraordinary kind, because Revels is now 40 years old. It's in ten cities at least across the country. It has all sorts of outreach projects. And just people who get involved in Revels just have this silly smile on their faces because it brings them such pleasure, not just involving them in music, but in celebration.

And Jack died in 2005 and I wanted to record him. We have his voice goodness knows on lots of records, because he was a wonderful singer. So I wrote a book called The Magic Maker. And Revels goes happily on.

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Books, screenplays, poetry

I've done a lot of different things, probably too many different things. But they have all used different parts of my imagination, I think. The only things I've written that have never been published, poems, apart from the lyrics that I've done for Revels and one poem called The Shortest Day which they use all the time. You get different, your imagination gets different kinds of happiness from different forms I think.

The greatest, for me, is when you're writing a book, when you're making that world that you live in while you're writing it. But the huge discoveries you get if you've written a play and the actors are on their feet or even just doing a reading and you learn it's the actors that are bringing it alive, it's not just you, and it takes on a life of its own and changes and you realize as the actors show you how one character relates to another that's a kind of evolutionary process.

Writing a screen play, that's the most dangerous for the writer, because it ceases to belong to you, even if you're on the set or through the shoot, which is very rare, it doesn't belong to you, it's a family enterprise. It can be exactly what you saw in your head when you were writing it. It can be something quite different. It could be better, but quite often it doesn't make you terribly happy.

But again even with a screen play there's a sense of being part of a family enterprise, which is comforting after the long solitude of writing a book. Perhaps I should have spent my life sticking to one form, but I didn't.

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"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark." — Victor Hugo, Les Miserables